The Anatomy of a Cesta de Navidad

When my very first cesta de navidad arrived, wrapped up in cellophane and emblazoned with Corte Inglés publicity, I excitedly ripped open the top of the box and dug out the contents of the box.

I was literally a kid on Christmas morning, just three weeks early.

Many companies and organizations give pre-packaged Christmas baskets to their employees during the holiday. They’re also raffled off at bars and hermandades for a few euros, but they all have two things in common: edibles and booze.

cestas de navidad el corte ingles

In my first cesta, I received four bottles of wine, one of whiskey and one of anisette, plus enough cured meat to tide me over until Easter. Baskets also include typical Christmas sweets, cheeses, conservas like bonito or white asparagus and an interesting brick of something called a “Christmas Broth.” Contents are neatly packed up and shipped out to the tune of anywhere from around 20€ and up to 300€! 

While my Christmas shopping usually consists of plane tickets to spend the holidays somewhere with my parents, this year I’ll be flying home for wedding planning. Rather than scramble for gifts amidst other scrambled shoppers, I decided to make a twist on the traditional Christmas basket by bringing my favorite and American-palatte-approved goodies home in ceramics.

What is in a Spanish gift basket

Because, really, what do you get the woman who has it all (as far as Spanish souvenirs go) and is picky? 

My American-Tastes-and-Customs-Friendly-While-Still-Being-Andalusian Cesta de Navidad:

1 50g sachet of saffron – 5€

Cesta de navidad saffron

The same amount of azafrán in the US costs $16, so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up nicely!

1 220g package of Andalusian oranges covered with chocolate and olive oil – 5€

cesta de navidad chocolate covered oranges

Everyone in my family but me are chocoholics, and these oranges are representative of Seville, with the olive oil giving it an appropriate amount of acidity.

1 300g orange marmalade spread – 4,50€

cesta de navidad orange marmelade

Naranjos abound in Seville, and the oranges collected from them are made into bitter orange marmalade. Nuns at the Santa Paula monastery make this particular type, and peddle it out of their turnstiles.

1 250mL tin of Basilippo Arbequina extra virgin olive oil – 8€

cesta de navidad Andalusian olive oil

Basilippo is an award-winning brand of extra virgin olive oil planted, harvested and pressed in nearby El Viso del Alcor.  The arbequina olive it’s made from is known for its suave and balanced taste.

1 package of Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite with cinnamon and sugar – 2,50€

cesta de navidad Ines Rosales cakes

Tortas de Aceite have been around for ages, and Ines Rosales is an international superstar when it comes to producing them just outside of Seville. Other varieties include savory with rosemary and sea salt, or made with oranges.

Assorted lard-free polverones – 2€

mantecados de estepa

I’m not a fan of these crumbly cookies, which are ubiquitous with Christmas in Spain. The most common version are made from manteca, or pig’s lard, which is a no-no with customs in the US. I found some piggy-free varieties at Ines Rosales.

6 Cola Cao individual packages – 1,43€

cesta de navidad Cola Cao

The bright yellow plastic canisters are a Spanish kitchen staple, and I love the powdery goodness of Cola Cao every Sunday with my churros. Rather than buying the canister, you can get individual packets just like at a bar.

1 package of Suchard turrón with whole almonds – 2,94€

cesta de navidad suchard

Spanish Christmas sweets let me down, but chocolate turrón is practically a gigantic candy bar. The normal stuff is nougat, made only with sugar, egg whites and honey.   

3 individual bottles of Frexienet cava – 3,99€

cesta de navidad champagne

These small bottles of cava are festive and perfect for toasting the new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And they’re easy to carry and open!

3 individual tetra bricks of Don Simón red wine – 1,35€

cesta de navidad don simon

I’m the only wine drinker in my family, so these miniature tetras are for novelty more than anything! Plus, customs is getting stricter on how much alcohol you can bring back, and it must be claimed on your customs form.

1 jar of pimientos de piquillo – 1€

cesta de navidad pimientos de piquillo

For whatever reason, I thought that pimientos de piquillo would make a good gift for a dad who loves to experiment with recipes. If all else fails, I don’t think they’ll go bad any time soon!

San Vicente semi-cured cheese – 3,65€

Cesta de navidad hard cheese

Meats are a big no with customs, but hard and semi-hard cheeses are totally fine. My sister loves any sort of stinky cheeses, and this is one gift I’m glad to get in on!

2 bottles of Taïfa beer – 4,40€

cesta de navidad local beer

My family members are big beer drinkers, so I picked up some local Taïfa cervezas from the Mercado de Triana. 

And to put it all together, 1 ceramic bowl – 12€

cesta de navidad ceramics

All that extra weight cost me 50.05€ for each cesta. 

I added little touches of things I’d known would be hits, such as black-and-white old photos of Seville for my parents, a tub of Nutella for my sister (not Spanish, but what everyone equates with European snack food) and a Spanish heavy metal CD for my brother-in-law.

Noticeably absent are the meats, the fish and the olives, but why transport things home that could get me in trouble with customs, or go uneaten?

Are you decking the halls, or are you more of a Scrooge? More on Christmas in Spain: Spanish Christmas Sweets | My Favorite Spanish Christmas TraditionsSnapshots of the Reyes Magos

Visiting Munich’s Christmas Markets

Exploring Munich's Christmas Markets

I’d long been hoping to visit Germany during Christmas time. After five trips to Deutschland during the coldest months of the year, I finally made it to Oktoberfest, an absolute dream for beer lovers.

But shortly after my trip to the Weis’n, my parents decided to spend Christmas on the Danube River aboard a river boat, leaving from Munich. Glühwein for all!

Christkindlemarkt Munich

After a chaotic trimester, I tacked on a Friday and Saturday onto a weeklong cruise to eat my way around the Bavarian capital. Flight delays dropped me into the city near midnight, and after fumbling around my hostel dorm room to try to change into pajamas, I woke up still fully clothed and running late to meet my cousin, Christyn.

The hostel workers pointed me towards the city center and circled no fewer than ten markets around town, most of which were clumped around Marienplatz. Even before 10am, the streets smelled of seared meat and sweet, candied nuts, but my sensors detected something else: the GLÜHWEIN. 

The delicious gluhwein

But in all seriousness, is there anything so delightful?

I chose a booth right in front of the statue that gives Marienplatz its name, and it seems she had the same idea: as soon as I’d wrapped my paws around the steaming cup, she’d sidled up next to me and ordered one, too.

The oldest Munich Christmas market, then called Nicholausmarkt, dates back to the 14th century, and  the city now has themed stalls all around town, from traditional to children’s to even a medieval markets that sells pelts and wooden swords. We began at Marienplatz, which has traditional offerings like Christmas decorations and food – and slowly worked our way around the periphery markets.

Visit the Munich Christmarkets

Munich Christmas Cookies

Christmas time in the Munich markets

peacocks in Munich

 

Eating brats in Munich

Christmas Time in Europe

Christmas markets and ornaments

How delicious is Gluhwein!

In the end, my money went not to whimsical dolls or ornaments for my fake Christmas tree, but to food and drink to keep me warm! I’d see more markets in Passau, Vienna and Salzburg on that trip, but Munich’s is more magical – even for a Scrooge like me!

Interested in reading more about Munich? Check out my posts on Oktoberfest, on my thoughts on Neuschwanstein and the surprising village of Passau.

Have you ever been to Munich or any Christmas markets?

Visiting London During Halloween

To anyone who knows me, no holiday gets me more excited than Halloween. I was shocked to find, during my first school year in Spain, that my favorite day of the year is reduced to kids dressing up in ghoulish outfits and teenagers looking to get drunk at an all-night botellón. No trick or treaters, no scary movie marathons and no candy hangover.

But even as an expat in Spain, I relish in our pumpkin carving parties and mini trick-or-treats, even if I don’t dress up. And because the holiday falls on a long weekend every year for All Saint’s Day, I have often ‘treated’ myself to a trip away in destinations as varied as Dublin and Germany.

 One such destination I have in mind for a future Todos los Santos long weekend? None other than London.

While the historic structures of London may inspire a great many things during the rest of the year, on Halloween, the city transforms itself into an eerie place. Every nook and corner hints of a terrifying creature lurking around, adding to the “spirit” of this festival. For those who have a thing for gloomy dungeons, spooky towers and bloodcurdling history; there’s no better way to get your fix than on Halloween in London.

Terrifying Events in Halloween
There is surprisingly a large number of rather terrifying Halloween events that are hosted at some of the creepiest venues around town. With a number of scary attractions and parties, people can make the most out of their well planned costume to give others some creeps as well.

The London Dungeons
With a fabulous cast of theatrical performers, The Dungeons is an amalgamation of amazing special effects, sets and a unique walkthrough experience. With a chance to see, hear, smell, feel and touch; all your senses will be in for a horrific ride. Considered a little scary, the Sweeny Todd performance at The Dungeons is a worth visit.

Jack the Ripper Ghost Walks
This tour commences right in the heart of the locality where the famed murder took place. This walk takes a rather atmospheric path through really old alleyways in the East End that are sure to give you some chills.

The Dias de los Muertos Halloween Party at Mestizo
This fun Mexican restaurant and tequila bar transforms itself into a ghoulish environ for a single night each year. Celebrate the Day of the Dead the right way by visiting this establishment on Halloween night.

London RIB Voyages’ Thames Rockets – Beware the Barrier!
This unique experience will take you at 35 knots all the way to the tombstones in the Thames Barrier. On Halloween, London RIB Voyages offers to you a spine-tingling experience. Your boat heads off into the waters in the middle of the night for a hauntingly dark experience. This experience is probably the best way you get into the spooky spirit of the festival.

Spooktacular Halloween at The Roof Gardens
There is nothing more eerie than celebrating this night at spectacular heights. Head to the Roof Gardens where you can party while overlooking the fascinating Kensington High Street.

Other gripping events include the Candlelight Club’s Halloween Masquerade Ball that will be hosted at a Secret Venue. ‘Strange Factories’ by Foolish People is also a unique Halloween experience worth considering.

Spending a Night in London on Halloween
An increasingly popular concept in London is the idea of spending a night in a haunted hotel while in the city. Most modern day hotels transform their lobbies and public spaces to represent the spooky spirit of the festival. There are also a number of properties that are centuries old and come with a fair share of eeriness around them.

A number of boutique hotels in London enhance your experience on and around Halloween. Visiting the city towards the end of October helps you be a part of these spooky celebrations.

As for this coming weekend, my friends played a nasty trick –  they got me to sign up for a 5k in Seville! 

Have you ever traveled anywhere haunted? Do you like Halloween?

Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

Seville Snapshots: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in Triana

If you’ve ever dreamed of candy rain (circa the Candy Coated Raindrops song from the 90s), you have a date with destiny today: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos. The Three Kings Epiphany parade has got to be one of the goofiest but beloved traditions for the expat community in Spain, where enormous floats laden with kids pelt candy and small, plastic toys at bystanders. 

There is hardly a trace of Santa Claus in Spain, as children believe that they receive their toys from the Three Kings who brought the Baby Jesus his gold, frankincense and mirth. Coming from the Orient by camel, Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar parade through the city on the eve of the Epiphany. After binging on Christmas sweets, families then gather to eat Roscón de Reyes, a flaky fruitcake laced with whipped cream.

I usually stick with a gin and tonic and ride out the candy storm, venturing out with an overturned umbrella to catch a few sweets for me and the Novio.

If you’re interested, the Cabalgata through Triana begins at 5p.m. this evening, a day later than normal. You can find the schedule here.

Want more? I wrote about Triana’s cabalgata last year, when my friends convinced me, on a candy binge, that it was a good idea to stay out until 6am. Jerks.

My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or that obnoxious song for the lottery drawing (in which respected singer Monserrat Caballé looks like she’s being possessed by the Ghost of Christmas Past), but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes. 

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch with my mom and aunt and sister at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts to eat and Christmas programming to enjoy.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights were officially on in November. 

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aestethic than acually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see lifestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings. Even my humble little working class barrio has them shining on Afan de Ribera.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes in America – what happens at work parties…

My Christmas dinners at the academy aren’t huge productions, nor do we even do the special Christmas dinners, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol. I also do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and only Spanish Christmas, I was drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends.

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE (though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior). There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee). And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. This year we’ll be drinking glüwhein down the Danube!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

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